18 January 2017

Prologue

Gil Coleman looked down from the first-floor window of the bookshop and saw his dead wife standing on the pavement below. He had been amongst the shelves all afternoon, thumbing through the second-hand books from front to back, pausing at folded-over corners, or where the text had been underlined, flicking through the pages to persuade them to offer up what might be hiding between the leaves. The cup of tea that Viv had brought for him had cooled, forgotten on the window seat. At about three o’clock he had picked up Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, a book he recognized and thought he might already own. It had fallen open, and there, tucked between the pages he had been surprised to see a folded sheet of thin yellow paper with blue feint lines.

Trembling, Gil had sat down beside the cup and turned the book sideways so he could open the note without removing it. One of his rules was that the things he found must never be taken out from their original location. He lifted both the book and the piece of paper up to the rain-streaked window. It was another letter, handwritten in black ink, and when he squinted he could read the date – 2nd July 1992, 2.17 p.m. – and, under that, his own name. The text below that was smaller, and the writer had paid no attention to the lines provided but had allowed their writing to slope downhill, as if they had written it at speed.

He patted the breast of his jacket, swapped the book to his other hand and dipped into the inside pockets, then tapped the sides of his trousers. No reading glasses. He moved the letter nearer and further away from his face to bring the writing into focus, and leaned closer to the window. The light was poor; the storm which had been forecast for Saturday had arrived a day early. When Gil had locked his car in the car park beside the Jurassic Crazy Golf playground, he saw that the wind had wrapped a plastic bag around one of the front claws of the Tyrannosaurus rex, so that the creature appeared to be about to step over the wire fence on its way to do some shopping. And as Gil had walked along the promenade to the bookshop, the wind had gouged troughs in the grey sea and flung the top edges of the waves towards the land, so that now, standing amongst the old books, he could taste salt on his lips.

A blast of rain rapped on the window, and that was when he turned to look out and down to the narrow street below.

On the pavement opposite, a woman in an oversized greatcoat stood gazing along the road. Only the tips of her fingers showed from the ends of the sleeves, while the bottom hem came almost to her ankles. The coat was a dirty olive colour from the rain – the cast of the sea after a shower – and it occurred to Gil that his daughter Flora would know the colour’s proper name. The woman pushed a strand of wet hair off her face with the back of her wrist and turned towards the bookshop. 

Swimming Lessons

The gesture was so shockingly familiar that Gil stood up and was unaware of knocking over his cup of tea.

The woman tilted her heart-shaped face to look up, as if she knew Gil was watching, and in that moment he understood the woman was his wife; older, but without doubt he thought, her. The rain had flattened and darkened her hair, and the water dripped off her chin, but she stared at him in the same defiant way she had when he’d first met her. He would have known that expression and that woman anywhere.

Ingrid.

Gil slammed his palm against the windowpane, but the woman turned away and stared down the street again, towards the town, and, as if she had seen the person or car she was waiting for, strode off. He hit the window again, but the woman didn’t stop. He pressed his cheek sideways against the cold glass and saw her for a moment more before she was gone from view. ‘Ingrid!’ he called pointlessly.

He snapped shut the book he was holding and, clasping it to his chest, hurried down the stairs, then to the front of the shop and through the door. From behind the till Viv called to him, but he kept going. Outside, the rain pasted his grey hair to his forehead and soaked through his jacket. The street was empty, but he marched along it, every two or three steps breaking into a trot, searing his lungs. By the time he reached the high street, Gil was puffing and struggling to catch his breath. He stood on the corner and looked up the hill. The pavement was empty. In the other direction, towards the sea, some tourists hurried, the squall bowling them towards to the water. He limped after them, scanning the people ahead for the large coat and glancing through the steamy windows of the café and the bakery. He weaved around a young woman with a buggy and, ignoring a stab of pain in his hip, crossed the road at the corner without checking for cars. He was on the promenade, eight feet or so above the beach. In the distance, a man walked at an angle against the gale while an ugly dog jumped and snapped at the wind – too fierce for May, more like an autumn storm. Gil slowed but continued to shuffle, head lowered, along the promenade until below him the sand ended and the breakwater boulders and the massive concrete blocks began, wet with leaping spray. The rain flew in his face and the wind buffeted him, pushing him into the metal railing at the edge of the walkway, tilting him over it as though he were being passed from hand to hand in a violent dance. Between the rocks, about a dozen paces further along and below him, Gil thought he saw a jut of olive and the whip of lifted hair.

‘Ingrid!’ he shouted, but the wind took his words and the woman, if that’s what it was, didn’t even turn her head. He continued along the promenade in her direction. Twice he stopped to lean out over the railing, but the angle and the height of the walkway, together with how she was hunkered down, meant he lost sight of her. When he judged that he must be above Ingrid, he tipped forward over the railing again, but couldn’t now even see her coat. He put his head and torso in the wide gap between the top and bottom bars, and, with the book in one hand and the other on a vertical post, Gil inched his left leg over the lower railing, swivelling it awkwardly so his foot remained on the lip of the promenade, while he negotiated his right over the bottom rail. When he was on the other side he clung on to the wet post with his free hand and cantilevered his body out, but his left foot in its leather brogue slipped.

It seemed to Gil that he fell in slow motion into the void, so there was plenty of time to think about the fuss his eldest daughter, Nan, would make, and how worried Flora would be, and then he thought whether, if he survived this fall, he should ask his children to promise to make a pyre of his books when he did die, and what a sight that would be. The fire, a beacon announcing his death, might be visible as far as the Isle of Wight. And Gil considered that if today was the 2nd of May 2004, which he thought it probably was, it meant Ingrid had been gone for eleven years and ten months exactly, and he also thought how he should have made it clearer that he had loved her. All this went through his mind while he fell between the rocks, and then there was pain in his arm and bursts of light in his head, but before the blackness swallowed him up he saw the book open beside him, its spine cracked in two.

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